Slipping on a pair of headphones to assess a game in which his team had allowed 40 points for the second time this year, in a building where it had never done so before this season, Vikings coach Mike Zimmer sounded dumbstruck about how it had all happened.
“It’s hard for me to figure out how we can continue to get better and play like we did a week ago and then play as poorly as we did this week,” he said after a 40-23 loss to the previously winless Atlanta Falcons.
“We didn’t do very many things right, and we’ve got to get it fixed.”
The fix, for the Vikings to emerge from the rubble of the seventh 1-5 start in their 60-season history, likely involves some combination of the following events: Their $32 million-a-year quarterback playing effectively after throwing a league-high 10 interceptions in six games; their young defense discovering consistency after allowing a season-high 371 passing yards Sunday; their ramshackle offensive line coalescing quickly; and their $12.6 million-a-year running back returning to full health after a groin injury.
In short, there is little chance of outside help coming for these Vikings, who spent much of last week publicly harvesting their one-point loss to the unbeaten Seahawks for signs of improvement.
Injuries to Dalvin Cook, Danielle Hunter and Anthony Barr have bewitched a team that came into the season talking boldly about a deep playoff run, but the bulk of the Vikings’ issues might be problems of their own making.
The withering defeat they suffered Sunday at home, where they fell to 0-3, sent the Vikings into their bye week confronting a stark reality: For the 2020 season to be anything but a wash, a group that was pounded by one of the league’s three winless teams, a week after nearly beating one of the NFL’s three unbeatens, will have to play well enough to win at least eight of its 10 remaining games.
Such proficiency appeared far from the Vikings’ grasp on Sunday, when Matt Ryan completed 30 of his 40 passes against a depleted secondary that again lost Mike Hughes to a neck injury. Kirk Cousins threw three interceptions before the end of the first half, and the Vikings ran for only 32 yards with Cook sitting out.
“I need to correct it,” said Cousins, who claimed responsibility for the loss. “I need to finish the season with a different story, regarding the interceptions, so that’s something I need to improve with the remaining games we have. I don’t know that I’d limit it to the interceptions. I think it’s just the entire offensive performance. It’s just, I need to be better, we need to be better.”
Cousins threw his first of three interceptions on the game’s first offensive play, when he tried to float a pass to Justin Jefferson over Atlanta linebacker Deion Jones. That pass, like the one Cousins tried to fit over K.J. Wright last Sunday night, led to a touchdown minutes later, when Matt Ryan hit Julio Jones for the first of their two touchdown connections in the game.
“I thought the first one was the worst one, if you will,” Cousins said. “First play of the game, and the coverage was not confusing. It was just a zone drop, and I simply forced the football into coverage, tried to do too much. That’s a mistake I may have made in Year 1, but I’m disappointed I would do that now.”
The Vikings had just 10 yards on their first three drives before Cousins hit Irv Smith Jr. for 36 on the final play of the first quarter after Jeff Gladney’s strip of Brian Hill for a turnover deep in Vikings territory.
That drive, when the Falcons had a 10-0 lead, was the Vikings’ best chance to score in the first half. But it died at the Falcons 1 when Atlanta won line-of-scrimmage battles on three runs in four plays.
The Vikings’ line couldn’t get much push for Alexander Mattison on first down, and rookie Ezra Cleveland — making his first career start — was beaten by Tyeler Davison on second down. After an incomplete pass on third down, Dante Fowler hit Mike Boone in the backfield after slipping past Kyle Rudolph’s backside block attempt on fourth and goal from the 1.
On the next Vikings’ possession, A.J. Terrell intercepted Cousins (on another pass intended for Jefferson), which led to Ryan hitting Calvin Ridley for a score. The Falcons motioned Ridley to the left side of their formation and forced Gladney to wade through traffic while following him on a crossing route going back to the right in man coverage. Another Cousins pick in a two-minute drill gave the Falcons time to drive into field goal range before halftime to build a 20-0 lead.
Down 23-0 in the third quarter, the Vikings got their first touchdown of the day after fighting out of a second-and-24 situation and converting a fourth-and-4 near the goal line before Cousins hit Jefferson for a 9-yard score.
But on the following series, the Falcons had their own fourth-down haymaker when Ryan, while scrambling to his left, stopped with Eric Kendricks in pursuit and flipped a pass to Jones as Gladney fell while trying to turn his hips. Jones coasted in for a 40-yard score that made it 30-7.
“Gladney comes off his guy when the quarterback moves there late in the game, and he throws it to his guy for a touchdown,” Zimmer said. “There’s a lot on Gladney’s plate, playing inside and outside. We’ve just got to continue to get out there and compete and get that mind-set.”
The first-round pick’s plate is full in part because the Vikings opted to start the season without a corner who’d started a complete season in the NFL.
Zimmer said he gave no thought to benching Cousins for Sean Mannion, but the quarterback stated the obvious after the game.
“The reality is if the pace I’m on in terms of the interceptions, if that were to continue, I won’t finish the season,” Cousins said.
Such a decision, after an offseason in which the Vikings gave new contracts to Cousins, Zimmer and General Manager Rick Spielman, would invite existential questions for a team that seemed so sure of its ability to compete while remaking its defense.
But as they head into their bye week with a worse record through six games than in any year since Leslie Frazier’s last one as head coach in 2013, little seems certain for these Vikings.